When you are contemplating changing your career, a common question to ask is whether you should go back to school. I hear a lot of questions from my clients about this:

  • What program or courses should I take?
  • Do I have the grades or qualifications to take the courses?
  • Can I afford to go to school?
  • Will I be able to get a job after I finish school?
  • Am I too old to go back to school?

What program/courses should I take?  Do I have the qualifications?

Take courses that you are interested in, and that will lead to a job that you will enjoy. Look online for schools that provide the kind of training you are looking for. Go to their open houses to learn more. Once you have determined some possibilities, find out what pre-requisite courses and grades are required. If you don’t have what they need, find out where to take the courses, or redo the courses if it has been too many years since you were in school. There will usually be more than one option. Don’t stop looking if the first option doesn’t fit your life.

Where should I get my education?

Conduct informational interviews with people already working in that field to learn which schools have the best reputation and which will lead to the kind of job you want. Don’t waste your money on schools with big advertising budgets but a bad reputation with employers. Look at how much time the education will take at each school, how much it will cost, how far it is from where you live, and the number of students in each classroom. Visit the school. Do you feel comfortable or excited? That is a good sign. If you have tight stomach muscles, try to determine whether it is an unfounded fear, or if your body is trying to tell you that this is the wrong place for you.

Can I afford to go to school?

To help one client answer this question, we looked at how much it was going to cost him to go to BCIT full-time for two years, and guessed at how much he would earn with a summer job each year. We didn’t include any part-time income while he was going to school because he had been out of school for more than 15 years and had a wife and kids. There was a likely probability that he would not have time to have a job and still have a balanced life. He researched what he would earn in his first few years of work and we used that to compare the next 10 years in a spreadsheet. In one column was his after-tax earnings for the next 10 years at his current job, with an adjustment for annual income increases. In another column was a negative income for the two years of school (income from summer work less the cost of tuition and books) followed by his projected after-tax incomes from the new job. We assumed he might be working part-time in his new job for the first year. By looking at the two columns, we saw that after seven years he was at the break-even point. For every year after that he would be earning more money than his current job, and he would be doing a job he expected to like a lot more than his current job.

School can be financed by savings, RESP’s, RRSP’s (lifelong learning plan) or student loans. You can apply for bursaries and scholarships, worth hundreds or tens of thousands of dollars.

Sometimes it doesn’t make financial sense to change careers, because you will be earning less money, but you feel driven to do it anyway. I won’t argue with your need to do that – I think following your intuition is always the best move and you can’t put a price on happiness. Go into it with your eyes wide open though.

Will I be able to get a job after I finish school?

You’ve probably heard stories of people that have spent tens of thousands of dollars on school, and then were out of work for many months before they got a job unrelated to their studies at school. No one can predict the future for you, but I believe that research and listening to your intuition will minimize your risk. Listen to what the schools tell you, but put more weight on what employers tell you. Unemployed former students often don’t complete surveys that schools send out asking about their employment status. This falsely improves the statistics that the schools present to prospective students. Remember that your education is not enough to get a job. Employers also consider your attitude, aptitude, communication skills, English language skills, appearance and past experience.

Am I too old to go back to school?
If you have dementia, you might not retain the information you are paying to learn. Seriously though, you are never too old to learn something new. If you are worried about being too old, ask three employers if they would hire you for the position if you had the education but were the age you will be once you complete it. If you haven’t been in school for many years, it  may take awhile to remember how to study. Colleges and universities like mature students though, because they are often clear on what they want and determined to do whatever it takes to get it. You likely won’t be distracted by the same things that you were when you were in school at a younger age.

If you decide to go back to school, get your application in as soon as possible because the school might have a waiting list to get in.

The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.
-Carl Rogers